Scottish Gothic and the Work of Mourning

Posted by Timothy C. Baker on April 06, 2015 in Guest Blog, Timothy Baker tagged with , , ,

I came to studying Gothic, and especially Scottish Gothic, as a sceptic. While critics such as Ian Duncan have influentially argued that Scottish Gothic is centred around ‘an association between the national and the uncanny or supernatural’ (p. 70), David Punter argues first, in his 1999 article that serves as a foundation for the field, that the formulation must ‘remain under a certain erasure’ (p. 102) and later, in 2011, that he is no longer sure ‘what such a description might mean’ (p. 9). The idea of Scottish Gothic rests on two unsupportable, or at least shaky, presuppositions: that there is a focus in Scottish Gothic distinct from English Gothic, and that there is, perhaps, a definable or consistent canon of Gothic literature in Scotland. The latter point seems easier to support, at least at first. The idea of the divided self has been frequently (too frequently) declared as the single most important aspect of Scottish literature, and the examples most often chosen to support it – James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark – certainly count as Gothic texts. And certainly in the past decades almost every Scottish author has drawn upon these themes, or indeed reworked these texts.

A Gothic that consists of rewriting the same texts over and again, however, can seem too static: not a living tradition, but a literary mausoleum. It is just as hard to claim that Scottish authors working in a Gothic mode do not draw just as much from English (and other) sources as they do from Scottish. Too often studying Scottish Gothic can be limited either to identifying pre-established themes, in a constant closed circle of references, or making spurious claims for the national or generic provenance of more ambiguous texts (such as Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, which I’ll discuss next time). The critic begins to sound like Scott’s Mr Lovel, in The Antiquary, crying ‘“Gothic! Gothic, I’ll go to death upon it!”’ (p. 48)

Scott Monument Under Construction (1844)

Scott Monument Under Construction (1844)

Yet these problems can productively be read not as incidental, but as one of the central concerns of Scottish Gothic novels themselves. The desire both to claim and escape a literary tradition is one of Gothic’s most important elements. As Deidre Shaun Lynch has recently claimed: ‘The evocation of a fictional world that is dense with signage is one measure that the gothic mode adopts so as to insinuate to its protagonists that they are not alone and that instead invisible agents orchestrate their fates and possess their minds’ (p. 199). Gothic is about the haunting power of words. As such, my approach to Gothic has centred not around familiar tropes, or psychoanalytic readings, or a search for national signifiers, but around the claim that Scottish Gothic is best understood as a system of textual relation.

As such, I want to claim that Gothic exists not as the set of conventions that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick so influentially and damningly listed years ago, but as a process, specifically as a work of (textual) mourning. Mourning, following Derrida, can be thought of as the image of death, the way death can be revealed, if not experienced. In Scottish Gothic this is not simply the death of the individual, but of a nation, a tradition, a language, or a way of thinking. Gothic reasserts the past into the present. Gothic shows us that we are not alone, because we have read, and been read. Gothic disrupts unified ideas of self and nation: as such, contemporary Scottish Gothic must be seen both in relation to earlier texts and just as much in relation to the absence of a unified tradition.

To clarify by example, Ali Smith’s Artful is neither a collection of literary essays nor a Gothic novel, but poised somewhere in between. The narrator is haunted by a dead partner, and consoles herself with reading, finding in old texts both the ‘weight of [her] own sorrows’ and the realisation that ‘someone somewhere sometime else had thought of the world as a sorrow too’ (p. 8). Even as her partner returns in physical form, slowly rotting in the living room, the narrator turns back to literature, trying to find in it a solution to ‘the mourning process’ (p. 98), or some intrinsic value. Literature, she finds, is ‘the place where reality and imagination meet’ (p. 188). It is thus positioned as the proper place of mourning, a place where the reality and image of death can be aligned. Texts, in this work, are how we see the world, and how we mourn our loss, and yet they are never sufficient on their own: the body of the human always intrudes, and cannot be explained.

Scottish Gothic presents a world in which texts teach us how to mourn, but at the same time must be mourned themselves. It is a world that relies on literary history and tradition and shows it to be partial or misleading. Gothic looks to a codified past, but finds in it a work, a process, that is forever unfinished. And it is this continual tension, and the way it calls into question apparently stable conceptions not only of genre and nation, but language, self, and body, that I wish to explore over the next several entries.

 

References:

Ian Duncan, ‘Walter Scott, James Hogg and Scottish Gothic’, in David Punter (ed.), A Companion to the Gothic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 70-80.

Deidre Shaun Lynch, Loving Literature: A Cultural History (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

David Punter, ‘Heart Lands: Contemporary Scottish Gothic’, Gothic Studies 1.1 (1999), 101-118.

David Punter, ‘Pity: Reclaiming the Savage Night’, Gothic Studies 13.2 (2011), 9-21.

Walter Scott, The Antiquary, ed. David Hewitt, Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995).

Ali Smith, Artful (London: Penguin, 2012).

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